Supreme Court of Canada – 2013 SCC 14
This decision determined whether the Crown had breached its obligations towards the Métis in its implementation of the Manitoba Act. The Court recognizes that there can be a breach of the honour of the Crown because of accumulated faults, and rejects a defense based on the passing of time.
A constitutional and solemn obligation of the Crown with the objective to reconcile its sovereignty with aboriginal interests gives rises to the honour of the Crown. However, since the Manitoba Act does not grant discretionary power to the Crown on aboriginal interests, there is no fiduciary duty.
[…] a negligent act does not in itself establish failure to implement an obligation in the manner demanded by the honour of the Crown. On the other hand, a persistent pattern of inattention may do so if it frustrates the purpose of the constitutional obligation, particularly if it is not satisfactorily explained. (par. 107 of the decision)
The fiduciary duty of the Crown did not arise in this case, but the evidence leads to the conclusion that the Crown did not act honorably in its unreasonably delayed implementation of land grants set out in the Manitoba Act. The application was not prescribed (6 against 2 – 1 abstention).
Between: Manitoba Métis Federation Inc., Yvon Dumont, Billy Jo De La Ronde, Roy Chartrand, Ron Erickson, Claire Riddle, Jack Fleming, Jack McPherson, Don Roulette, Edgar Bruce Jr., Freda Lundmark, Miles Allarie, Celia Klassen, Alma Belhumeur, Stan Guiboche, Jeanne Perrault, Marie Banks Ducharme and Earl Henderson
And: Canada and Manitoba
Interveners: Saskatchewan, Alberta, Métis National Council, Métis Nation of Alberta, Métis Nation of Alberta, Treaty One First Nations and Assembly of First Nations
The Red River Settlement was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company since 1811, in what is now Manitoba.
In 1867, after Confederation, Canada paid the Hudson’s Bay Company for Rupert’s Land. The Red River Settlement thereby became Canadian property. As a result of the Métis concern that an influx of English speakers on their territory would endanger their culture, the imposition of Canadian dominion was met with armed resistance by Métis leader Louis Riel in 1869. As the newly-founded Dominion of Canada was not in a position for a military takeover, the government of Canada took a more conciliatory route.
After negotiation with delegates nominated by Louis Riel, the Canadian Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, which allowed Manitoba to become a province of Canada, Canadian ownership of the public lands, as well as a grant to Métis children of 1.4 million acres of land (s. 31) and recognition of existing landholdings (s. 32).
When the time came for implementation of ss. 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act in 1871, 1.4 million acres of land were set aside. However, a number of errors and delays interfered with the “effectual” distribution of the lands to children of the Métis.
It became clear that there were more Métis children than were accounted for, and so the Canadian government issued $240 worth of scrip redeemable for land for each of the excluded children in 1885. Due to the delay in distributing the scrip, the value of the land had increased dramatically and no longer corresponded to the amount received by the children.
The process took a total of 15 years from the adoption of the Manitoba Act. The Métis population soon became a minority on the Red River Settlement. The Manitoba Métis Federation advances a collective claim of the Métis people.
MMF: Canada owes the Métis a fiduciary duty to implement ss. 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act. The Crown additionally breached its duty to act honourably.
Canada: A pre-existing aboriginal interest in the land was not established, pursuant to s. 31, in order to give rise to a fiduciary obligation. There was no duty arising from the honour of the Crown. In any case, the claims are subject to the law of limitations and the doctrine of the laches and so cannot be heard by the Court.
The Manitoba Court of the Queen’s Bench: Sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act engaged neither the fiduciary duty nor the honour of the Crown. Furthermore, the claim was barred by limitations and the doctrine of laches.
The Manitoba Court of Appeal: The decision is upheld.
McLachlin, LeBel, Fish, Abella, Cromwell, Karakatsanis
The Fiduciary Duty
The relationship between the Métis as an aboriginal people and the Crown is generally of a fiduciary nature, although not all interactions trigger the fiduciary obligation of the Crown. There are two ways in which the fiduciary duty arises. The first instance in which the fiduciary duty comes into play is when the Crown holds discretionary power over a specific aboriginal interest. The second possibility is where the Crown has the obligation to act in the best interests of the Aboriginals, and they are in a position of vulnerability where they stand to be adversely affected by the undertaking of the Crown.
There is no fiduciary obligation of the Crown according to the first definition. The evidence did not support the claim that the interests in the land arose from a shared Métis identity as opposed to personal history. The said interest must be communal and the land must be historically integral to the nature of the distinctive community and to their relationship with the land. As a group, the Métis did not have interests in the land as defined by ss. 31 and 32.
According to the second definition, there is also no fiduciary obligation as the Crown was never obligated by ss. 31 of the Manitoba Act to act in the best interests of the Métis children and give those interests priority. S. 32 does not constitute a fiduciary obligation either because it applies to all land owners and not just the Métis.
There is therefore no fiduciary obligation of the Crown towards the Métis arising from ss. 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act.
The Honour of the Crown
Where there is an explicit obligation of the Crown towards one of the aboriginal groups mentioned in section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, the honour of the Crown is engaged. The honour of the Crown dictates that the interpretation of the obligation must be made as a function of its purpose, and that the Crown must act diligently to fulfill it. In order for the honour of the Crown to be compromise due to a lack of diligence, there must be repeated errors or indifference that hinders the fulfillment of the obligation towards the Aboriginals.
In this case, s. 31 of the Manitoba Act was a solemn constitutional obligation to the Métis of Manitoba and engaged the honour of the Crown. Its immediate purpose was to protect Métis land interests against those of the incoming settlers from the rest of Canada. Its broader purpose was to reconcile the conflicting interests of the Crown and the Métis of Manitoba. The delayed distribution of land grants demonstrated a lack of diligence on the part of the Crown. The number of errors as well as the consistent indifference of the Crown more or less defeated the purpose of s. 31 and were inconsistent with the honour of the Crown.
Since the obligation imposed by section 32 does not apply exclusively to Aboriginals, there is no duty to act in accordance with the honour of the Crown.
The Law of Limitations and the Doctrine of the Laches
The law of limitations requiring actions to be initiated within six years does not apply to the Métis claim that the Crown did not act honourably. Limitations acts cannot prevent the courts from issuing a declaration on the constitutionality of the Crown’s conduct, and the MMF does not seek damages.
In a similar manner, the doctrine of the laches does not apply to the claim based on the honour of the Crown. The doctrine of the laches requires that a dispute be brought before the Court without undue delay. In this case, the honour of the Crown was not recognized until very recently and so the Métis could not invoke rights that were not yet recognized in their claim before the Court. Also, the Métis did not in any way demonstrate acceptance of the status quo, and the Crown did not change its position based on any such demonstration.
The Court created a new legal remedy in this decision. A violation of a solemn, constitutional obligation is now considered a compromise of the honour of the Crown. Furthermore, the Court now recognizes that a failure to diligently fulfill such an obligation constitutes a violation incompatible with the honour of the Crown (Rathwell, 2013).
However, the Court never specified which type of legal document gives rise to such an obligation. There has therefore been a creation of new law, without a clear explanation of when and how it applies (Shaw, 2013).
Furthermore, this new obligation seems to be a lightened version of the fiduciary obligation. This would allow for claims to be made by invoking the honour of the Crown, yet without meeting the more stringent criteria of the fiduciary obligation. This new obligation has therefore largely expanded the liability of the Crown with regards to aboriginal groups (Banks, 2013).
This judgement is a great victory for the Métis people and has resulted in favourable reactions from various communities (CBC News, 2013). Although no damages were rewarded by the Court, the decision gives more bargaining power to the Métis in future negotiations with the government of Canada and with the provinces (Lucky, 2013).
Applies concepts viewed in Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests),  3 S.C.R. 511 and R. v. Powley,  2 S.C.R. 207
Banks, Nigel. 2013. The Manitoba Métis Case and the Honour of the Crown. The University of Calgary Faculty of Law; Blog on Development in Alberta Law. Online: http://ablawg.ca/2013/04/09/the-manitoba-metis-case-and-the-honour-of-the-crown/. Consulted June 25, 2013.
CBCNews Canada. 2013. Métis Celebrate Historic Supreme Court Land Ruling. Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/03/08/pol-metis-supreme-court-land-dispute.html